Diamond in the rough

Published 11:34 am Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rocky Gap County Park provides families with an easily-accessible beach. (Leader photo/JILL McCAUGHAN)

Rocky Gap County Park provides families with an easily-accessible beach. (Leader photo/JILL McCAUGHAN)

Rocky Gap Park could shine even more with proposed improvements

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Just a few miles north of St. Joseph off of M-63, Rocky Gap County Park is tucked away from the crowds and hubbub of the more popular beaches in southwest Michigan.

“We don’t track the number of users there, but use of this park is much less frequent than that of Silver Beach,” said Brian Bailey, director of Berrien County Parks.

Located on Rocky Gap Rd., the park provides visitors with 1,100 feet of white-sand beach access as well as a beautiful view of Lake Michigan and the St. Joseph lighthouses to the south.

A parking lot sits directly at the entrance to the beach, so the walk from one’s car to the water is quite short compared to that of some other beaches. That can be a big plus when one is carrying lots of beach equipment or taking smaller children to the beach. Dogs are not permitted at Rocky Gap.

“I like Rocky Gap because it’s easy to access,” said area resident Terry Ives. “I like the out-of-the-way beaches. You can walk the beach and swim there. I love it.”

Although Rocky Gap is one of the Berrien County parks, visitors to the park do not need to pay a fee to park and use the beach.

“There is no entrance or parking fee at this park,” Bailey explained. “The $35 annual pass is not needed there.”

That makes Rocky Gap a great beach to visit for shorter periods of time.

While Rocky Gap provides visitors with an easily accessible and free way to enjoy the beach, the park does lack some facilities, including restrooms.

“It’s a wonderful park, but we know some improvements could be made,” Bailey said.

For that reason, the County has submitted a $600,000 grant application to the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund for improvements to be made at the park.

According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources website, The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund began as the “Kammer Recreational Land Trust Fund Act of 1976.”

“The money comes from mineral rights in the State of Michigan, mainly oil and gas, and the money is earmarked only for natural resource acquisition — that is, buying property — and recreational development,” Bailey explained. “No tax dollars would be used for

the project.”

It was through this type of funding that Berrien County acquired and developed both Silver Beach and the new Galien River County Park.

The park improvement plan, which can be viewed at www.berriencounty.org/Parks/RGImprovementPlan, separates Rocky Gap into two areas, an upper and a lower section.

The upper section, located on higher ground north of the current beach access area, is currently a large gravel parking lot. However, planners envision an area there that would include a viewing platform and picnic areas for visitors to enjoy.

“We’d like to build a viewing platform in the upper area. That would provide visitors with a place to eat lunch and see the lake,” Bailey explained. “With the platform, you’d be able to see the North and South piers and the lighthouses.”

That upper area would also include a place that could accommodate small weddings of 40 to 50 people. Parking for 18 cars and several “picnic pads” would also be built there, some of which would be wheelchair accessible.

“We don’t want to change the park atmosphere, but we want to provide better viewing opportunities,” Bailey said.

Improvements to the lower section of the park would include a paved ramp that leads to the water’s edge.

“One of the main improvements would be a barrier-free access road in the lower part of the park. That would allow emergency vehicles to access the water, it would allow beach-cleaning equipment to get down there, and most importantly, it would allow wheelchairs to access the water,” Bailey said.

In addition, restroom facilities would be built, as would curved overlooks with benches and a sandbox for toddlers to play in on wavy days when their parents might not want them too close to the water. That sandbox would also serve as an efficient place to collect sand from the parking lots.

As the plans for Rocky Gap are still in the design phase, the implementation phase would not begin until the fall of 2015 or the spring of 2016, provided that the plan is approved by the trust fund and the funding is granted.

“The governor and the legislature would have to authorize that funding,” Bailey said. “If people want to see the plan put into effect, they can contact the legislators for their communities and let them know that they support the improvement plan.”

Even without the planned improvements, Rocky Gap remains a beautiful, secluded and peaceful place to spend some time by the lake. However, as Bailey noted, there are no lifeguards at Rocky Gap.

“Think ‘safety first’ when you’re near the water,” Bailey cautioned. “Never swim alone, and be sure to observe the water safety signs.”